What Is The Matrix? Revisiting the game-changing original
Mark Harrison | On 18, Dec 2021
Director: Lilly Wachowski, Lana Wachowski
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne, Joe Pantoliano, and Hugo Weaving
“Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is – you have to see it for yourself.” It was a good marketing line back in 1999, but it goes for The Matrix as an experiential thing too.
In this day and age, there’s nothing that sings on the page about the story of Keanu Reeves’ online loner learning he’s actually the best and most important person in the world and fighting with a load of people who aren’t as enlightened as he is. We’re told early on in the film that Thomas Anderson (Reeves) lives two lives – by day, an unfulfilled office drone, and by night a hacker whose online handle is Neo. Upon meeting freedom fighters Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), he emerges from the monotony of everyday life into a world where he and a dedicated resistance cell wage war against machines that have most of mankind in hock to a mass simulation called the Matrix.
It’s not for nothing that Lilly and Lana Wachowski’s film is held up as one of the best Hollywood action movies of the 1990s. For better or worse, The Matrix was hugely influential on the action cinema of the following decade, not only setting the dress code for franchises such as X-Men, Resident Evil and Underworld, but also raising the bar for American movie stars doing Hong Kong-style action choreography. The visual effects aren’t to be sniffed at either, with the debut of the groundbreaking (if eventually overused) “bullet-time” effect, where a virtual camera moves at regular speed through a slow-motion shot.
This is a martial arts thriller, a sci-fi actioner and an existential horror all in one movie, meaning there’s any number of directions from which the legacy of “Matrix knock-offs” can be described as such. What sets it apart is the brand of pop-philosophy (it arguably put the “pop” in there itself) that reconfigures the Terminator-style robot oppressors narrative into something more emotionally resonant.
Of course, the Wachowski sisters’ later transition has inspired new readings of the film’s themes and story – in the androgyny of certain characters (whether that’s Neo and Trinity as a pairing or Switch in their real world/avatar forms) or the cold indifference of suited agents dead-naming them (“Misster Aaandersson”). Likewise, this adds a new dimension to Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) choosing to go back to his comfortable ignorance of oppression and rejecting being awake and aware of others.
However, upon the film’s 20th anniversary in 2019, a lot of retrospective reviews of the film suggested that it made an impressionable audience unwilling to accept reality, referring not only to the rise of online conspiracy theorists but also the idea of the “red pill” being misappropriated by misogynists and white supremacists. From where we stand, the film’s unfortunate trigger-happy tendency is more a hangover of 1990s action cinema than anything else and the sequels would consciously direct violence away from bystanders, but we’ll get to those films in due time.
Where the first film succeeds is in structuring its ambitions. It may be a portentous way of delivering ideas that are fairly straightforward but, all ambiguity aside, this has a rock-solid action movie structure, with a pretty much perfect cast doing both the fighting and the exposition.
Reeves has always been a deceptively versatile actor, which is why he’s a better pick for The One than other potential casting considerations Will Smith, Nicolas Cage and Leonardo DiCaprio. All three are charismatic leads, but Reeves has had massively different action hits throughout his career (most recently with the John Wick movies) because his brand of cool makes the audience malleable too – we’re down the rabbit hole with Keanu almost before we know we’ve set off. Elsewhere, Moss and Fishburne are endlessly watchable, and Hugo Weaving makes an iconic villain out of Agent Smith’s suited banality.
The cast brings a lot to it, but it’s as true as it ever is that you get what you bring to a movie. If you’re looking for something to chew on philosophically, what you actually get here is popcorn, even if there are different schools of thought on whether it’s salted or sweet. Intended as stylish, sci-fi-flavoured self-actualisation, it’s as entertaining, quotable, and stimulating as it ever was.
As to the sequels, which we’ll also be revisiting, we’ll paraphrase the film’s kick-ass ending: “Where we go from here is a choice we leave to you.”